Electronic waste creates threats and opportunities
Our appetite for getting hold of the latest mobile phone, smart TV and other electronic gadgetry, from US-style fridge freezers to 3D printers, is putting Britain in grave danger of being buried under an ever-increasing mountain of WEEE.
The UK generates more than 300 million tonnes of waste every year, with around 2 million tonnes of this unwanted material being Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. In fact, WEEE is the fastest growing waste stream worldwide at 3.5% each year.
And the increasing amount produced can be more dangerous than general waste because each item of WEEE can contain more than 1000 different components, many of which are considered hazardous.
Material that can harm human health in mobile phones, for example, include lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chlorine and bromine.
The dangers your old mobile phone pose
Lead is found in a wide variety of mobile handset components, including the circuit boards, batteries and the outer plastic case. Lead exposure can cause damage to the reproductive, blood and nervous systems.
Mercury is also used in the phone’s battery, crystal displays and circuit boards. A single mobile phone contains up to 2 grams of mercury. Mercury exposure contributes to brain and kidney damage.
Arsenic is found in the microchips of many electronic devices. In high doses, arsenic poisoning is lethal, while low levels of exposure affect the skin, liver, nervous and respiratory systems.
Cadmium is another hazardous component used in a phone’s battery. It is associated with deficits in cognition, learning, behaviour and neuromotor skills in children and has also been linked to kidney damage.
Chlorine is a component of plastics used in cell phones, specifically PVC. Exposure to improperly disposed chlorine causes tissue damage and the destruction of cell structure.
Bromine is a component in a group of fire retardant chemicals known as brominated flame retardants. Studies have shown that bromine contributes to the disruption in the thyroid hormone balance, brain damage and cancer.
But waste electronics are not just sources of harmful materials. Gold worth more than £7bn is being thrown away hidden in the 42 million tonnes of high-tech junk discarded by consumers each year, according to a report by the United Nations University.
The UN study warns that less than 16% of global e-waste is being diverted from landfill into recycling and reuse – representing the loss of an “urban mine” of potentially recyclable materials worth more than £34bn.
This includes 300 tonnes of gold (equivalent to more than 10% of global production in 2013) as well as 1,000 tonnes of silver worth £400m and 16 megatons of steel with a value of £6.5bn.
And a separate study by Wrap, the government-backed charity that encourages recycling, found that 23% of electric and electronic waste collected from municipal sites was still in good working order or required only a small amount of repair.
The UNU research also identified Britain as among the world’s most profligate producers of e-waste, ranking fifth in the weight of material discarded per inhabitant, with each Briton generating 23.5kg each year.
The UK was also sixth worldwide in the total amount of e-waste the country generated, with some 1.5 megatons – barely 100,000 tonnes less than India which has 20 times the population.
In conclusion, the United Nations says that just one-third of e-waste in the UK is recycled through recognised schemes – a figure that must reach 85% under EU rules by 2019.